Natural Consequences (2): Isaiah on the Fire we Light

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Is hell just retributive punishment inflicted actively by God?  The language of “punishment” and the fact that God is a judge who casts people into the fires of hell seems to favor this understanding.  But is there any biblical evidence for the idea that the fires of hell (whatever they are) are self-lit?  Consider Isaiah 50:10-11:

Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant, who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon his God?  Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who set brands alight!  Walk by the light of your fire, and by the brands which you have kindled!  This shall you have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment.

Notice that the fire is self-lit.  While it is true that those aflame receive from God’s hand that they “lie down in torment”, this active language is not incompatible with the idea that God’s sending suffering is in some sense a natural consequence.  God’s glory shines out from the flesh of the risen Christ and fills all things in heaven and on earth in the world to come.  Some persons whose wills have been fixed in virtue receive it pleasantly and are deified.  Others receive it unpleasantly because of their vice.  This fire is self-lit because we make our own vice, but it is from God because the divine glory must fill all things to bring God’s purposes to completion.  As St. Gregory the Theologian says:

One light alone let us shun: that which is the offspring of the terrible fire.  Let us not walk in the light of our own fire and in the very flame we have kindled.  For I know of a cleansing fire that Christ came to send on the earth, and that he himself is analogically called a fire.  This Fire takes away whatever is earthy and of evil habit.  This he desires to kindle with all speed, for he longs for speed in doing us good, since he gives us even coals of fire to help us.  I know also a fire that is not cleansing but avenging; either that of Sodom, which he pours down on all sinners, mingled with brimstone and storms, or that which is prepared for the devil and his angels. 

On Holy Baptism, Oration 40.36

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13 Responses to “Natural Consequences (2): Isaiah on the Fire we Light”

  1. David Says:

    Here’s something interesting for you (and me, actually) to think about.

    There was a Ligonier conference a few years ago on the attributes of God. During one Q&A session, someone asked how God could have wrath if He is immutible, and wrath seems to be a response to something. Sinclair Furgeson answered that, technically, in Reformed theology, wrath is not a divine attribute (God was not wrathful in Heaven before creation/fall). Rather, wrath is what is experienced by sinners in the presence of God’s holiness.

    Now, he said holiness, you say love, and obviously there are going to be some small but important differences there, but the position you’re advocating (at least in these first 2 posts) seems awefully close to a Reformed understanding (that, by the way, seems to able to account for all the Biblical data you’ve mentioned so far).

  2. MG Says:

    David–

    Yeah, its similar. We would say that wrath is what is experienced by sinners in the presence of God’s holiness. However, there are probably gonna be some divergences. Here’s three I can initially think of:

    1. Traditional Western theology has no way of articulating what it means to “stand in the presence of God’s… well, anything.” You’re gonna have to say that God can be locally present at specific places; and that’s going to require some changes in the doctrine of God.

    2. You guys would probably want to say that the justification for why sinners are made to stand in the presence of God’s holiness is solely or primarily retributive. We would say it is an inevitable consequence of the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. God’s will is utterly effectual in accomplishing the glorification of humanity in Christ. He loses nothing of all that the Father gave him, but raises it to glory in the eschaton. And that includes those who reject the grace that has entered their nature. But this is an inevitable, consequence of Christ’s incarnate economy, given habituation into vice.

    3. We would say that God loves everybody fully and truly.

  3. David Says:

    That makes sense, and I figured there would be such differences.

    But doesn’t the admission of this major similarity, even considering these three divergences, sort of undercut your project thus far? What we have now established is that, in some sense, even those who hold to a retributivist model can fully account for the sorts of “they lit their own fire” passages that you’re citing. It seems to me that, in order to make your case now, you have to appeal to other theological concerns (such as the ones Mark mentioned in the previous thread), specifically ones that address the three points of divergence you’ve just mentioned. But then, if this is where the real argument lies, then pointing to Scripture passages like you’ve been doing is really beside the point.

  4. Krause Says:

    Nilsen,
    I really don’t think that laying out a biblical argument for the kind of thing we are arguing for is beside the point. Even if we only argue people into the type of reformed position you are talking about where punishment is effected by the presence of God, not HIs absence. I think this is a much better position then is held by your average Prot. or Catholic.

    Think about what Furgeson said and think about what Ciocchi might think about it. Jt doesn’t strike me as something he’d agree with.

    Furthermore, I think as Mike pointed out, once you starting admitting this kind of thing, you start to have problems with what you could possibly mean by coming into God’s presence. It doesn’t seem to be something that admits of a purely juridicial interpretation. The idea is, once you start thinking on these lines, you’ll realize that Orthodoxy actually has the conceptual equipment to explain this and Western theologies don’t. Basically, even if reformed people can give an another interpretation to the kinds of Biblical arguments we’re presenting, I think that ultimately our interpretation works better.

    But hey, that’s just me. At least these arguments should get people to admit that we’re not crazy or simply ignoring the Bible when we say these sorts of things about God’s wrath (as Ciocchi might think).

  5. David Says:

    Mark, I can understand that.

    In my recent studies of the Lord’s Supper, one point that kept coming up was how strikingly similar Calvin’s view was to the Orthodox view. Once again it seems we’ve hit on a point where EO and the Reformed are much closer to each other than to either RC or non-Reformed Protestants (which on the surface would seem counterintuitive…although it actually makes sense to me right away, considering how steeped in the Fathers Calvin’s work was). I find this all fascinating, and look forward to continued dialog.

    I especially can’t wait until we both finish seminary, so we can compare notes! 😛

  6. Joseph Patterson Says:

    David,
    Could you point me to where Calvin describes hell as the sinners response to God’s holiness? I have heard Reformed theologians start to use this argument recently but I am wondering if you could also find this view of hell in say Warfield, Hodge and further back.

    Thanks,
    Joseph

  7. David Says:

    Hey Joseph,

    Actually I can’t. I’m afraid I’m not familiar enough Calvin’s writings (or Warfield’s).

    I do know that the Reformed have always thought of Hell as being an intentional “pouring out” of God’s wrath, so to speak, which is the aspect of the Reformed view that gets the most press. So it’s not identical to the EO view being expressed here by any means. But for as long as I’ve been studying Reformed theology (which, admittedly, hasn’t been long) I’ve always heard this notion of Hell being the presence of God’s holiness which sinners experience as torment. It’s usually brought up in the context of refuting modern evangelical understandings of Hell being the absence of God.

  8. Joseph Patterson Says:

    David,
    Thanks for your response. The reason that I asked is that I have spent a number of years in Reformed Theology in the 90’s and I had never heard or read any view like this in Reformed Theology until a happened upon a lecture by a Reformed pastor on the net a few months back who said this same thing. He quoted CS Lewis. I wonder if CS Lewis is not an inspirer of this so-called Reformed view? When I was Reformed I would have said that God’s wrath flows from his eternal and immutable justice. God has to punish sin and evil because not to do so would be contrary to His justice.

  9. David Says:

    “When I was Reformed I would have said that God’s wrath flows from his eternal and immutable justice. God has to punish sin and evil because not to do so would be contrary to His justice.”

    I’m sure the Reformed would still say this. But this doesn’t seem like an answer to the question, “what is wrath?” This answers questions like “why is God wrathful?” or “is it good that He is wrathful?” But to actually consider what it means for God’s wrath to be poured out would require a different response (something like what Ferguson said). In other words, the two answers aren’t mutually exclusive, and indeed they’re quite harmonious.

    Reformed theology has been forced to defend itself against Arminian evangelicalism for so long, I think that in many ways Reformed theologians have actually let them set the agenda. And since (American) Arminian protestants are so preoccupied with God being a fair and loving God, to the exclusion of wrath, this is often where the Reformed theologian has to enter the debate. The 5 Points are a perfect example. They’re actually the 5 responses (and they represent a relatively small portion of Reformed theology), but hardly anyone knows that anymore.

    As far as the connection to C. S. Lewis, I would be surprised if it was something as simple as that. Most Reformed theologians are initially critical of Lewis, and so they only import his ideas with caution. And besides, it’s not as though this is his idea anyway. Lewis was an Anglican and a good student of the Fathers (and of course, so was Calvin).

  10. Andrew H. Says:

    ‘In my recent studies of the Lord’s Supper, one point that kept coming up was how strikingly similar Calvin’s view was to the Orthodox view.’

    No, actually, they are worlds apart. Calvin’s Eucharistic theology is premised upon a Nestorianizing Christology, where Christ’s body is spatially located at the ‘right hand of God’ and therefore unable to be present on numerous altars throughout the world at every Divine Liturgy. Not to mention the Lex Orandi of the Church makes it quite clear that the Orthodox communicant receives ORALLY the immaculate body and precious blood of Christ, something Calvin found to be ‘monstrous’.

  11. David Says:

    Hey Andrew, thanks for the comment.

    Obviously I would disagree that Calvin’s view is Nestorian (this is something his Lutheran interlocutors accused him of often, thus he has many defenses against it).

    But my point was not that Calvin’s view is identical to the EO view, simply that it is closer, from one perspective at least, than the others. Yes, RC and Lutheranism both affirm that you actually receive Christ through the mouth, which Calvin denied. However, I’m told that EO wouldn’t actually accept transubstantiation as currently defined by Rome, and obviously they don’t accept Luther’s view either. On the other hand, Calvin’s description of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Supper is quite similar to the EO view. And he does affirm that Christ’s body and blood are truly received at Communion, just not through the mouth.

    Now, I haven’t studied the EO view at length, and in fact I’ve barely scratched the surface of Calvin’s writings. I’m mostly going off of what I have read, as well as a Catholic and a Lutheran theologian, who both suggested that Calvin’s view was, minus the whole chewing Christ thing, closer to the EO view than either of theirs was. In any case, I wasn’t suggesting that there aren’t major differences.

  12. Andrew H. Says:

    ‘Obviously I would disagree that Calvin’s view is Nestorian (this is something his Lutheran interlocutors accused him of often, thus he has many defenses against it).’

    His Lutheran interlocutors were right. It’s been awhile since I’ve read Calvin, but where does he unequivocally affirm that the genus idiomaticum is a real predication, and not just a verbal predication? And where does he unequivocally affirm the genus maiestaticum?

    ‘However, I’m told that EO wouldn’t actually accept transubstantiation as currently defined by Rome’

    Right, because it’s predicated upon dialectical opposition, that is, that the eucharistic host cannot be both bread and Christ’s body. Orthodoxy rejects this dialectical opposition.

    ‘and obviously they don’t accept Luther’s view either’

    Obviously? Luther, like the Orthodox, affirms undialectically that the eucharistic host is both bread and Christ’s body, and that both are received orally.

    ‘On the other hand, Calvin’s description of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Supper is quite similar to the EO view.’

    Did you get this from Horton? No, the Orthodox don’t have any notion of the soul being carried up to heaven by the power of the Holy Spirit in order to ‘feed’ spiritually on Christ’s body. The Epiklesis in the Divine Liturgy is the prayer offered to God the Father, beseeching Him to send down the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine Christ’s true body and true blood. Sure, both Calvin and the Orthodox may emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit in their respective eucharistic theology, but they mean very different things by it.

    ‘Lutheran theologian’

    Who was this Lutheran theologian?

  13. David Says:

    Andrew,

    “Did you get this from Horton? No, the Orthodox don’t have any notion of the soul being carried up to heaven by the power of the Holy Spirit in order to ‘feed’ spiritually on Christ’s body. The Epiklesis in the Divine Liturgy is the prayer offered to God the Father, beseeching Him to send down the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine Christ’s true body and true blood. Sure, both Calvin and the Orthodox may emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit in their respective eucharistic theology, but they mean very different things by it.”

    By Horton I assume you mean Michael Horton from Westminster? From what I know of his views, I doubt very much that he would find anything in common between EO and the Reformed on…well, anything.

    As for everything else, you might be right. As I said, I was using the comments of a Roman Catholic and a Lutheran (David P. Scaer) as a base for what I said, and it’s definitely something that I intend to continue studying.

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